Walkman Fades Away

After three decades of fighting, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is finally about to win a battle against a music reproduction technology: the tape cassette. Sony recently announced that it will no longer produce the once popular Sony Walkman. The Walkman became synonymous with portable personal music. While the cassette technology lost out to the CD Walkman long-ago, this is notable because of the impact that the cassette had on the recording industry as a whole.

There was widespread fear among record labels that the compact tape cassette would kill sales in the 1970s and 1980s. The British Phonograph Industry (BPI – the UK’s parallel to the RIAA) conducted a campaign in the 1980s called “Home Taping is Killing Music and its illegal.” The RIAA did not pursue tape cassettes as hard as compact discs and later mp3s because with every additional recording of an analog tape, the recording quality is degraded. However, compact tapes did represent a new phase of music “piracy.” With their widespread use, partially because of the availability of the Walkman, piracy became something of which music fans were acutely aware.

There are a number of reasons to recognize this moment: for instance, the widespread distribution of the tape cassette was also the moment when music fans could make mix-tapes for their friends and significant others. However, there are as many reasons to simply move on. With each new music technology, there is a corresponding move against it by the RIAA.

The problem for major record labels is that companies that produce hardware need software to play on each new technological innovation. People will not buy a new player if they do not have anything to play on it. Hardware companies are always trying to produce a new technology to be the first to benefit from a larger profit margin and patents, so they actively research and develop new media formats. Once these companies produce the newest technology, they need media to play on their players. This has been the story since the gramophone.

If the major record labels could control the development of new technologies for playing their albums, they would, but this has become increasingly difficult for them with each new technological change. People have continually figured out ways to use technologies for their own needs and as long as the hardware companies keep benefiting from large profits, they will continue to produce new technology (and the RIAA will continue to try to shut down the technology).


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